Social Skills Learning on the 9th Planet

Video Modeling Program Produced in Washington County is Designed to Engage Autism Spectrum Learners

A family is hosting a friend for dinner. The child in the family watches as the friend reaches for a cookie and says, "You'd better not eat that or you'll gain more weight."

A man is talking to a group of people at work about his recent vacation. A co-worker stands at the outer edge of the conversation group and interrupts the story, saying (a little too loudly) – "Hey, did any of you know that the last drive-in movie theatre in the state has decided to shut down for good?"

The child and co-worker in these examples might be easily dismissed as rude or weird or tactless or stupid. Truth is, they're perfectly normal for individuals with High Functioning Autism (HFA). Individuals with HFA possess many of the technical skills of conversation. They can say words clearly and use grammar correctly in long, complex sentences. However, they don't inherently understand the rules for social language – such as tact and staying on topic -- which allow them to engage in the appropriate back-and-forth conversations which are precursors to making friends and developing relationships.

Video Behavior Modeling is an Effective Tool for Teaching Social Skills

Individuals with HFA can learn social language skills when those skills are directly taught to them. Research studies conclude that one of the most effective strategies for teaching social language skills is video behavior modeling. In video behavior modeling, target behaviors are broken down into small component skills. For example, engaging in conversation involves the skills of maintaining eye contact with people in the conversation group and paying attention to what others are saying (joint attention). The skills of maintaining eye contact and paying joint attention to others are modeled in separate videos by a peer (peer modeling) or the student (self modeling). The student watches the skill demonstrations and then imitates the behaviors, individually and in conjunction with each other, until they feel familiar.

In time, a student may be able to generalize the skill, meaning he/she may be able to move beyond using the skill in the specific practice setting to using it in new, unplanned situations. Generalization may or may not happen for individual students. Even if skills are generalized, the jury is still out on the question of whether ASD individuals ultimately learn to intrinsically understand social behaviors or simply perform them as they would a memorized script.

9th Planet Video Behavior Modeling Program – Adds Humor

There are several video modeling programs which can be used to teach social skills. One program, called 9th Planet, uses video modeling along with elements of humor to encourage sometimes reluctant ASD students to actively engage in social skills lessons. The 9th Planet program uses a "stranger in a strange land" theme to demonstrate social skills in an entertaining way to spark student interest in the characters modeling the target behaviors. The videos feature a young man named Tad Shy who hails from the 9th Planet (hence the program name of 9th Planet). Tad is stuck on earth where social rules are different from the ones he used (or didn't use) on the 9th Planet. He encounters social situations he doesn't know how to manage and is coached by a talking, animated computer named Bob. The videos model a wide variety of social skills, from relatively simple skills such as eye contact to more complicated skills like recognizing false friends. One teaching series models social skills for students who are searching for jobs. Some of the job search topics include networking, working with a job search mentor and doing information interviews.

Learning By Doing

The learning in the program goes beyond video modeling and into learning by doing. Tad Shy, the central character, is played by a young man on the Spectrum who edits the videos and assists with script writing. Many of the videos feature young people on the Spectrum who play different characters in the videos. Learning plans include theatre-influenced activities such as role plays, conversation volleys and improvisation exercises to reinforce the video learning. Students also work on projects to create their own social skills videos.

Locally Produced, Globally Sold

The 9th Planet videos and learning plans are produced locally by a family-owned company in Washington County. Many of the videos are shot at business locations in Washington County, including Hagberg's Grocery, Turnstyle, the Stafford Library, the Bikery, Candyland and Jamie Schultz Photography. The company also shot an introductory video at St. Croix Valley Community Access Channels in Stillwater. Video locations outside Washington County include The Source (comic book store) and Classic Car Autos in Ham Lake.

The videos and learning plans are used in a growing number of secondary classrooms in Minnesota and are part of the curriculum at Minnesota Life College, a post-secondary life skills teaching school in Richfield. The program will be offered this fall, winter and next spring in Skill Shops at the Autism Society of Minnesota. The videos and program are also being sold across the United States and in Australia, the U.K., Germany and Canada.

Next Steps – Tough Stuff Skills (such as keeping a job and dating)

As more videos and learning plans are produced, 9th Planet will increasingly focus on the socially complicated skills which often pre-occupy transition-aged and young adult ASD learners. A skill set package about social skills on the job is in the early phases of production. The production team is also starting work on a series, requested by a local school, about dating and romantic relationships. A single e-pub video and learning plan will be released this summer called Recognizing False Friends, which teaches some of the skills involved in discerning when a friend isn't trustworthy and saying "no" to an untrustworthy friend when personal boundaries are crossed.

Bottom line -- there's a seemingly endless list of social language skills to be dissected and taught to ASD learners who struggle with communication and relationships. 9th Planet videos and learning plans use researched effective practices to teach those skills. Most importantly, the 9th Planet program is designed to make social learning a challenge but also fun - because if ASD students think social skill learning is only a matter of hard work, it won't happen.

Melva Radtke lives in Lakeland and is the co-producer of 9th Planet, LLC. Melva teaches job searching and social skills courses for the Autism Society of Minnesota. She is also the author of "Rules of the Road in Special Education," an advocacy course for parents, published by Mundo Pato, an online network which connects health professionals, community educators and families with children on the Autism Spectrum. Melva is a licensed attorney and the button-busting-proud parent of three adult children, one of whom plays a key role in the production of 9th Planet videos and is on the Autism Spectrum.  You can watch an introductory video about 9th Planet on YouTube.  Melva may be reached at melva@9thplanet.org or visit the website at 9thplanet.org.